Painted in the summer of 1927, Pablo Picasso’s monumental Femme debout is one of a series of works described by Christian Zervos as “tableaux magiques”. Created between 1926 and 1930, this group saw Picasso fuse a hybrid of influences, both internal and external—tribal art, Surrealism, his cubist syntax, as well as the passionate yet turbulent love affairs that defined his private life of this time—working like a magician to conjure a new, radical and expressive mode of representing the human form, one that harnessed a novel emotional power that was at times captivating, disturbing, threatening, or moving. Seen together, these works are regarded as among the most revolutionary depictions of the figure since the artist’s cubist years. Picasso kept this striking painting in his collection for the rest of his life, after which it passed to his daughter, the jewelry designer, Paloma Picasso.
On an impressively large scale, made even more imposing thanks to the ascendant, vertical white rectangular form that spans the height of the canvas, the starkly simplified, masterfully rendered figure of a standing woman presides. As in his cubist works, Picasso has unpicked and played with the established tools of pictorial representation. Line no longer implies nor creates volume but stands on its own to demarcate forms; color is expunged, the composition rendered solely with a dramatic grisaille palette; and, as a result, mimesis is no longer the aim of representation, instead signs and abstract shapes create an intensely simplified and stylized, yet no less expressive, portrayal of the human figure. “What emerged at this point in the career of a painter in search of the avant-garde was the dismantling of illusionism inherent in the imitation of appearances.” Christine Piot has written. “As Picasso rejected automatism and uncertainty, he imposed and superimposed on visible reality the ‘interior model’ he himself had created” (The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2003, p. 238).
The year 1927 was a landmark time in the life and career of the artist. In January, Picasso had met the woman who would become one of his greatest muses and lovers, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Beguiled by her statuesque form, youthful innocence, and luminous coloring, Picasso embarked in a passionate yet completely clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse, keeping her secret from everyone, especially his Russian ballet-dancer wife, Olga Khokhlova, with whom he was rapidly falling out of love. As a result, Marie-Thérèse entered Picasso’s art in carefully disguised, playfully enigmatic, love filled codes, her initials overlaid to create the form of a guitar or a still-life, joined in one case with the artist’s “P” to create their own intertwined monogram (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 54). At the same time, Olga was inspiring in Picasso’s art evermore monstrous heads—terrifying phantoms and deformed personages with split profiles and mouths agape to reveal sharp teeth—that would continue to emerge in the years that followed.
That summer, Picasso left his amorous new muse, and together with Olga and their son Paulo, traveled south to Cannes. Instead of staying with the glamorous bohemian gang that had formed around Gerald and Sara Murphy, with whom the artist had spent previous summers, the Picassos took rooms first at the Hôtel Majestic, before installing themselves in a secluded villa outside the town, known as the Chalet Madrid. With Olga’s health worsening and their relationship fast deteriorating—“Olga is in a deep depression,” he wrote to Gertrude Stein later in the summer—Picasso could not resist the lure of his young lover and in early September returned to Paris to see her (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, vol. III, p. 339).
Back in Cannes and rejuvenated from his secret tryst, he began to fill a pair of sketchbooks with dozens of biomorphic, surreal, exaggeratedly volumetric drawings of nude bodies gallivanting or in some cases unlocking a cabana on the beach. These were Picasso’s fantasies of “Marie-Thérèse’s pumped up body,” as John Richardson described, which assumed “the guise of his own engorged penis” (ibid., p. 339). These drawn studies and related paintings display a radical re-imagining of the female body, represented in bizarrely surreal, monstrous, yet surprisingly sensual, abstractly reconfigured and monumentalized forms.
The bathers drawings saw Picasso continue what had become a central preoccupation in his art during this seminal spring and early summer: the female figure. During this prolific summer, Picasso was driven by a passionate creativity, working in a variety of idioms. Along with the bathers, it was also in Cannes that Picasso created a small number of standing nudes and heads that at first seem to be diametrically opposed to the phantasmagorical visions of woman that he was also creating. These large scale works, of which the present Femme debout is one, feature the female figure pushed to the same extreme exaggeration of form as the bathers, but this time the bodies have been simplified, reduced to an abstract amalgamation of flattened lines and signs: a nose is a circle, while eyes and mouth are interchangeable almond shapes. Indeed, the interlocking lines that create the figure’s arms and torso in Femme debout also happen to create the shape of the letter “M” and “T”. Could Femme debout therefore be another veiled depiction of Marie-Thérèse, her flowing blonde hair and radiant presence translated into the curving lines and ascendant plane of white?
Of the present work, T.J. Clark has written that, “By the look of it she is standing in a void. The woman’s uprightness is abstract. Her body is reduced to a number one. But here too the abstractness, which in Picasso’s mind is always associated with emptiness, seems to have come painfully. We have the sheet of drawings, presumably from much the same time—maybe ideas of the painting, or afterthoughts once it was finished—and once again, top right and bottom left, the standing figure migrates back into the world Picasso knew. Doors half open; floors present themselves; a shadow triangulates a picture on the wall” (op. cit., 2013, p. 220).
While Femme debout and the other large, abstracted visions of woman painted in Cannes appear to be the antithesis of the concurrent bathers drawings, they are closely related, often illustrating the same fantastical figure but with vastly contrasting handling. Indeed, this prolific summer of artistic exploration and creation is defined by these paradoxical modes of working, as the artist alternated between an exaggerated, amorphous pictorial language, to a reduced, minimalist, purist geometry; from an overt, heavily modelled three-dimensionality, to a resolutely two-dimensional flatness. This intensive study of the female figure propelled Picasso to thinking once more about sculpture, in particular the commission he had received in 1920 to create a monument to his beloved friend, the writer and poet, Guillaume Apollinaire.
The following year, these artistic experimentations would manifest themselves in the surreal, biomorphic Metamorphosis sculptures, as well as the geometric, linear iron Figure structures. In many ways these artistic acrobatics were mirrored, perhaps even inspired by, the duality that characterized other areas of his life at this time. From the sensual, abundant pleasure he found in Marie-Thérèse, to the painful, cold hostilities he experienced with the increasingly ailing Olga, it is the poles of Eros and Thanatos that define both the artist’s life and art of this important period.